Notes about writing, landscape, and life in the Texas Hill Country


"We keep each other alive with our stories. We need to share them, as much as we need to share food. We also require for our health the presence of good companions. One of the most extraordinary things about the land is that it knows this—and it compels language from some of us so that as a community we may converse about this or that place, and speak of the need."
Barry Lopez

"As much as we live in a place, we live in place; we inhabit a condition of the soul. We live where we have made definitions, and in the process of making definitions, we create a place in which to live."
Sallie Tisdale

"The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction."
Rachel Carson

"I can see myself beginning to fashion what I need: new pathways to solitude, new ways of looking at time and at time alone, new ways of conceiving a notion of place, and other ways, if not new ones, to create places apart."
Jacqueline Jones Royster

"There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story."
Linda Hogan


Susan's Hill Country Journal
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Susan Wittig Albert
Ph.D. UC Berkley

author of
China Bayles Herbal Mysteries
Robin Paige Victorian Mysteries
(as Robin Paige)
Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter
Writing From Life
Work of Her Own

Contributing editor:
Country Living Gardener Magazine
writing teacher
garden columnist
Founder: Story Circle Network

Bulletin Board
A Map of MeadowKnoll
All text/photos
©2003-2005 Susan Wittig Albert

The Edwards Plateau, Central Texas
The Edwards Plateau, Central Texas

Familiar Plants of the Edwards Plateau
History and Change on the Plateau
Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge
(10 miles south of MeadowKnoll)
habitat description, wildlife lists
The Edwards Aquifer
The Trinity Aquifer
Our Weather

Story Circle Network
The experience of Katrina is an experience of place, located at the intersections of the natural and human-made worlds. If you have a Katrina story to tell, the Story Circle Network invites you to record it here, and to read others' stories:

Killer Plants

Ecotone: Writing About Place

Wednesday, August 27, 2003  
A twitchy time. Getting ready for the trip, wanting to be there, not wanting to leave here. A muddled, befuddled ambivalence, but there it is. Clothes aren't a problem: I long ago learned that I travel most comfortably in jeans, shirts, and sneakers, with a duffle bag to stuff it all into. And I have a couple of take-along knitting projects: two lace scarves. The lace yarn is incredibly delicate, and the two balls I wound from the skeins fit into the palm of my hand. I'm taking my AlphaSmart (the handy-dandy word processor that fits into my purse and will handle 100 pages of stuff) and a tape recorder. This is a working trip, I keep reminding myself.

Ah, but books! Surely there will be time for reading. So what to take? Am reading an old Josephine Tey mystery, Love and Be Wise--that will go, unless I finish it tonight. I'm leaning toward Brit stuff: maybe another Tey
(The Daughter of Time, a favorite reread), a Miss Silver (The Silent Pool, by Patricia Wentworth), Dorothy Simpson's Suspicious Death, and Joanna Trollope's The Rector's Wife. On tape, I may take a couple of Angela Thirkell's novels (Coronation Summer and Cheerfulness Breaks In). This ought to hold me until we get to Colchester, and Greyfriar's Bookshop.

Once I've restocked my suitcase library, it's on to the Lake District, where we're staying for a week in the Sawrey Hotel, an easy walk from Beatrix Potter's Hill Top Farm. Daytrips to Hawkshead, Ambleside, and Kendall, with time left over for rambling around the little Sawrey villages--that's my agenda. Bill hasn't decided yet what he'll do. Says maybe he'll just sleep for a day or two, then go tool-hunting.

After the Lake District, we'll drive down to Woodstock for a day at Blenheim Palace, a morning at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and a walk around Juniper Hill, which Flora Thompson immortalized in Lark Rise to Candleford. Then home. We're hoping this trip will be slower and less stressful than the one in 2000, where we zipped up to Scotland and down to Devonshire, with too many sights, too many stops, in between, while it poured rain. Kudos to Bill, who braves the Brit traffic and those blasted wrong-way roads without a blink of an eye. If I were doing this by myself, I'd have to take the bus.

View from our porch on a rainy evening. Maybe next year, we won't go anywhere on vacation. Maybe we'll just lock up the computers, stock up on a few dozen books, and spend two weeks watching the deer browsing in the green meadow on the other side of the fence.

Reading Notes. "When nonwriters talk to me about writing they always say they wouldn't have the discipline. Perhaps it isn't discipline, only interest. I go to my desk as quickly as I can get to it in the morning, simply because it is what I do, where I want to be. I can't get enough time at it. That isn't where the discipline comes in, anyway. Where the discipline comes in is learning how to work when one gets there."--John Jerome, The Writing Trade, p. 152

This is it for a while, folks. Notes and photos when we come back.

8/27/2003 02:25:00 PM

Tuesday, August 26, 2003  
Quick post tonight, since Bill wants to watch a tape of The Buccaneers, as background for the Consuelo Vanderbilt book. I've just posted this to Econotone: Writing About Place, a "place blog" for bloggers who are fascinated (obsessed?) as I am, with the notion of place.

The mesquites that grow abundantly here in the Texas hill country are usually small trees, but large in spirit, large in generosity--but not well loved by the local ranchers, who hate mesquite with about the same passion intensity that they direct to prickly pear cactus. Mesquite are deep-rooted and compete with grass for the limited water. And, back in the days when cows were rounded up by real cowboys on horses, you could lose half your herd in a thorny mesquite thicket. In fact, mesquite is on the Texas hit list of invasive plants.

But there are fewer ranchers than there used to be in Burnet County these days, and it's getting harder to object to mesquite. The tree is perfect for xeroscaping your yard (as long as you don't let the kids go barefoot where they can step on the thorns). The wood is a natural for barbecue, and mesquite jelly is delicious, sort of like apple jelly. Settlers hereabouts processed the dried beans into flour, which was in turn made into bread and, cunningly fermented, into booze. And artists are discovering the exotic beauty of its wood. Here's a photo of a mesquite vase that my Bill turned on his lathe. Lovely to have the mesquite outside my window and inside, on my desk.

Reading Notes. "A writer's job is to imagine everything so personally that the fiction is as vivid as memories."--John Irving

8/26/2003 07:11:00 PM

Monday, August 25, 2003  
It's almost impossible, these days, to escape the sense that we're connected with everything else, everyone else, in the world. Sahara sand gets swirled up in a cloud and deposited on my doorstep in Texas. A gas pipeline breaks in Arizona, the lights go off in the Northeast, and the price at the pump at the local convenience station goes up 22 cents a gallon. A hurricane blows ashore on the Baja, and we get rain here at Meadowknoll. No kidding. The moisture is blowing across the mountains of Mexico and tomorrow's rain chances have gone up to 60%, which ain't bad for late August. I get a kick out of thinking that tomorrow's rain was born in the Pacific--the same kind of kick that I get when see that Sahara sand on the car windshield. The world is a small place, after all. What goes around, comes around.

Blooming now, a few Stella d'Oro daylilies, beside the creek. Most of my daylilies are the ordinary orange kind, stubbornly drought resistant. But the Stella d'Oro are both hardy and beautiful. And tasty, too, in a mild sort of way. Haven't eaten them? You might give it a try. You can eat the fresh buds and petals raw or cooked--tossed into soups or stir-fries or sautéed and added to a . Strew the fresh petals over a salad. Use the blossom to decorate a cake, or stuff it with chicken or crab salad and wait for the compliments. And if you still don't believe me, order Peter Gail's cookbook, Delightfully Delicious Daylily and try some of his recipes. (And don't worry--the Chinese have been eating them for centuries.)

Just doodling around with the book, mainly because Bill is otherwise occupied and doesn't want to dig into the project for a while. If I get too far out in front of him, he may not like the direction I'm taking. So today I doodled a couple of character sketches, thinking that maybe something unexpected might turn up. It did, too. Not from the doodling itself, but from a book I picked up while I was between doodles. You just never know where an idea is going to come from. Maybe from television (we'd better get something good out of it), or from surfing the Net, or looking out the window. Today it came from a paragraph in a 70-year-old book I glanced at between doodles.

Reading Notes. "So much of writing is about sitting down and doing it every day, and so much of it is about getting into the custom of taking in everything that coems along, seeing it all as grist for the mill."--Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, p. 151.

8/25/2003 07:01:00 PM

Saturday, August 23, 2003  
Popcorn showers, we call them. A sluggish stream of moisture is flowing northward from the Gulf, and when a small atmospheric disturbance provides a trigger, rainshowers bloom. Yesterday, they bloomed for everybody else in the county but us. Today, humid and hot, with plenty of light rain around us--none here. This is the view from the barbed-wire fence at the foot of our meadow, looking to the southwest across the Baum Ranch. Grass rippling like green silk, highlighted by the white blooms of snow-on-the-prairie, lidded with sky, heavy with cloud. The heat presses down--it's 94 at the moment--and there's no breeze. Bill just came in from mowing. A hot job on a hot day.

I'm not working as hard as Bill is today. Wrote a short scene with Winston Churchill and Marlborough (they were cousins), more to feel my way toward their relationship than with any expectation of producing usable material for the book. (See Reading Notes from yesterday.) But I was surprised when I finished and reread the thousand or so words I'd written. I think the scene does what it needs to do, without doing too much. When Bill cools off, I'll read it to him and get his take on it.

Robert, a frequent contributor to this weblog, sent me some thoughts on chainsaws, and included this note:

"The idea that when the writer is ready the story will come rings true for me, and not just with what I write. Several years I visited a couple who were licensed bird rehabilitators. I was working on a feature article for the Dallas Morning News. During the course of the interview, they brought out a Red Tailed Hawk. Just thinking about sitting eye to eye with that beautiful bird still gives me goose bumps.

Later that week I picked up a piece of walnut that I had moved dozens of
times over a period of six months, but never could see what was in the
wood. On that day I saw a Red Tailed Hawk. Four or five hours later I had
carved my first raptor, and it was beautiful. Sold it later that summer
for a princely sum, and did not argue with the man who bought it as an
eagle. The feature article was accepted, but before it could be published
the Dallas morning News discontinued the Metro West People section. My
disappointment that the article did not get published was more than
somewhat mollified by selling the walnut bird for at least 5 or 6 times
what I would have received for the story."

Yes--reminds me of Michelangelo's "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." I don't pretend to know what sparks the vision, what makes us see the red-tailed hawk or the angel, or the story--I'm just very glad when it happens. I feel as if I'm on the blessing end of a miracle.

Reading Notes. "An essential portion of any artist's labor is not creation so much as invocation." But also this, from Sophy Burnham: "In the end, the gods help those who also help themselves."

8/23/2003 04:33:00 PM

Friday, August 22, 2003  
Blooming now, garlic chives. It's a good thing this hardy perennial is so lovely, because it sure as heck loves to propagate itself. The leaves are flat and strappy, about twelve inches high. The flower stalks grow up to 30 inches high, and are topped with showy greenish-white flower heads. I like the mild garlic flavor of the leaves and use them in soups and salads. The older leaves are coarse, so I keep a couple of plants sheared off at the base (even if I'm not using them), so they regularly put out tender shoots. I let the other plants . . . well, do the natural thing. Be fruitful and multiply. Move over, roses. Here come the garlic chives.

Feeling my way through another short chapter of Blenheim, probably not the first chapter, but it's a place to start. That's the nice thing about a book that's written from multiple points of view (this one will probably have seven or eight). You can start somewhere, anywhere, and write that little bit of somebody's story. Then you can shift to a different character and work from her point of view. You learn as you go who the people are, what their story is. Then you can begin piecing it together, figuring out how the stories are related, where they overlap, where they contradict each other. (No two people ever see the same thing in the same way--guaranteed.)

Bill and I do have an outline--well, sort of an outline--for the book, although most of it is in Bill's head, some of it is in mine, and none of it is down on paper. Since this will definitely lead to kinks in the communications lines (not to mention heated arguments), we'll probably write it down before we go much farther. Subject to revision, of course. We never end where we intend to go when we start out. But we've been doing this together long enough (17 years now) so that the indefiniteness of the process or the indistinctness of the conclusion doesn't bother us. Not much, anyway. We comfort ourselves with the reminder that we've never seriously missed a deadline.

Reading Notes. From Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, p. 18. "E.L. Doctorow once said that "writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard." Amen.

8/22/2003 06:51:00 PM

Thursday, August 21, 2003  
I'm always amazed by the accidental nature of so much of my writing. A couple of years ago I became interested in Eleanor of Aquitaine--sort of a feminist thing, I guess. She was a strong-minded, strong-willed woman, and she left an imprint on her world, and not just because she was married to Henry II. Part of her story is the story of Rosamund Clifford, Henry's mistress--I got interested in her, too. I collected a biography of Eleanor and a half-dozen novels about her life, most of which included Rosamund.

Now, I discover that "Fair Rosamund's Well," at Blenheim, is the legendary site of Rosamond's "bower," the labyrinthian garden that Henry is said to have constructed around the house that he built for her. And as I think about Rosamund, I see some fascinating parallels between her story and the story of Consuelo. So I've been playing with that today, and imagining ways to weave 12th-century Rosamund into a 19th-century mystery. Kate, of course, can be writing a novel about Rosamund. Maybe I'll include some of that in the book, as well. Bill thinks it's a good idea--he's still working on the Ashmolean Museum angle, and Charles's story.

Also went to look for our copy of Ted Morgan's biography of the young Winston Churchill, Young Man in a Hurry, and remembered that I had given it to my son Michael, a Churchill admirer. Had to order a new copy. Winston is in this book too, since he was at Blenheim at this time (late spring, 1903), working on his biography of his father, Randolph.

Time for a dog photo. Lady is a rescue Lab who has lived with us since January 2001. She spends most of her day in my office, sprawled on a doggy bed next to my desk, keeping me company and listening to classical music on the radio. A companionable dog, she loves being hugged, going for walks, mangling her chewie, and taking a swim in the creek or the lake. She hates thunderstorms and going to the vet, and she doesn't care much for getting her toenails clipped. Other than that, she's perfect.

Reading Notes. "The story chooses you, the image comes and then the emotional frame. You don't have a choice about writing the story. . . . I think a story ideally comes to the writer; the writer shouldn't be casting the net out, searching for something to write about."--Raymond Carver.

I believe this too, and in a variant of a familiar saying, would posit: When the writer is ready, the story will come. There's something in this Blenheim story that is drawing me to Rosamund and to Consuelo, and even to silly, scattered Gladys, the woman who followed Consuelo into the Duke's bed.

8/21/2003 06:32:00 PM

Wednesday, August 20, 2003  
Bill has a new toy. Well, not a toy, exactly. He says it's a tool. It sharpens his chainsaw blades. (If we have a Texas chainsaw massacre here, it won't be with dull blades--oooh, bad joke.) The object of this exercise is to sharpen the dozen or so very dull chainsaw blades (a blade is that loopy metal thing he has in his hand in the photo) that he's been saving up for quite a few years. It's too hot for him to work in his shop, so he's set things up on the dining room table. That red gizmo in front of him is the saw sharpener. So now we have the sharpest chainsaw blades in Texas. (This is what writers do--well, some of them, anyway--when they're not writing. They sharpen things.)

Cookin' up some fun. I've been invited to teach at the Houston Central Market's Cooking School in January. Four recipes, from any of the books. They do the cooking, I just do the demonstration and talk about China, Ruby, the tea room, and writing mysteries with recipes in them. An invitation I can't refuse. Move over, Julia Childs, and make room for China! Details as they become available--if you're in Houston, you won't want to miss this!

Plains, Deserts, Canyons, Mountains: Women Write About the Southwest. That's the working title for the new Story Circle memoir collection, under contract to the University of Texas Press. If you're a woman who enjoys writing about nature, you'll want to check out the project website. I'm one of the four editors; the others are Susan Hanson, Jan Seale, and Paula Yost. You'll be hearing about this as we move toward the deadline (April 1, 2004), but I thought you might like to take a quick peek now, so you can start thinking about the work you'd like to submit.

Robin Paige stuff today. Bill did the bibliography. I don't know why we do that first, except that it's maybe easier to do before the books get scattered all over our offices, hidden under mounds of papers and skeins of yarn and dirty coffee cups. I set up the cast of characters (that's harder than you might think) and wrote three pages. I also surfed around on the Internet, looking up the Ashmolean and Armitt Museums, the Rollright Stones, maps of Ambleside and Woodstock. Lots of good things to play with. Almost as much fun as sharpening saw blades.

Reading Notes. Annie Dillard again: "When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner's pick, a woodcarver's gouge, a surgeon's probe. [And a chainsaw blade?] You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year."--The Writing Life

8/20/2003 07:10:00 PM

Tuesday, August 19, 2003  
More Robin Paige stuff today. Late last night, I remembered a book we'd had for some time: The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief, by Ben MacIntyre. It's a fascinating study of the man who stole Gainsborough's painting of the Duchess of Devonshire--and who was Conan Doyle's real-life model for the fictional Professor Moriarity. Now he's about to become the model for another fictional villain: Robin Paige's new super-thief. So this morning, Bill and I went back to the plot outline and created a new character, who fits perfectly into our ensemble of dissatisfied dukes and duchesses. Yay! Another one of those days when writing is actually a great deal of fun. But maybe that's because the deadline is sixteen weeks away, and two of those weeks are vacation weeks.

Fiber stuff. I'm knitting children's hats these days, for the Afghan collection. (The link is in the left panel, at the bottom.) I've never done much color work before, and these hats are simple enough to allow me to use them for pattern and color experiments--all very simple and elementary, really. A real knitter would giggle at them. But I'm having fun, and learning something new with every hat, since I'm making these up as I go along. That by itself is an accomplishment: not being tethered to a pattern, I mean.

It's gonna be hot all week, they say. 98 today, no rain in sight. Bill and I spent some time yesterday reorganizing the "Library," a storage building in which we keep boxes of books we haven't used in a while, craft stuff, old tools, and boxes of boxes. It's sort of like a basement, which we don't have. And hot, as in sauna. In five minutes, we were dripping. But Bill had brought some shelving home from Houston, where his mom is breaking up housekeeping, and we had to install it. And while we were at it, we sorted out a big pile of stuff to get rid of. Our good deed for the month. We both feel virtuous.

Reading Notes. "Writers read literary biography, and surround themselves with other writers, deliberately to enforce in themselves the ludicrous notion that a reasonable option for occupying yourself on the planet until your life span plays itself out is sitting in a small room for the duration, in the company of pieces of paper."--Annie Dillard, The Writing Life.

8/19/2003 06:49:00 PM

Monday, August 18, 2003  
Robin Paige did some preliminary work on the next book project today. I took Bill's notes and began making a list of the plot strands for the Blenheim book, which takes place in June, 1903. Charles is investigating a series of country-house thefts. Kate is researching a book on Fair Rosamund (Henry II's mistress). The Duchess is trying to find a way out of a bad marriage. The Duke is seducing Gladys Deacon (who will succeed in becoming Duchess of Marlborough when the divorce finally occurs in 1921). Gladys is trying to hurry things along a bit. Winston is writing his famously whitewash biography of his father (Randolph Churchill, the Duke's uncle). And then there's the mystery, which I won't tell you about because that would spoil the suspense. I love writing books with multiple plot lines, and as Bill and I talked about this, I decided I was ready to get started. So tomorrow morning, page one . . . .

The best library in the universe. I've always loved libraries. I think I wanted to become an English professor just so I'd have an excuse to spend most of my waking hours in the library. Now, I have the Internet, which is one huge library, and growing larger and richer every minute. To get ready for our trip to England, I spent a couple of hours this afternoon roaming around Oxfordshire--virtually. I discovered a website that offers a virtual tour (with 360-degree video cams) of the exterior of Blenheim Palace, as well as five towns within just a few miles. I visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where Charles has some dealings with a curator, and took a side trip to Juniper Hill, where Bill and I are meeting a very nice man who is going to take us on a walking tour of the area where Flora Thompson lived as a child. I printed out maps, descriptions, and bibliographies. Whew! What a treasure-house the Internet is. Makes me dizzy. Makes me marvel. Makes me feel so rich.

Another hot-as-blazes day. But there's a cool corner beside the back deck: a goldfish pool in a half-barrel. See the water coming out of the red pump? There's a recirculating pump in the pool, and the falling water makes a lovely, dimpling sound. Last night, sitting on the deck in the dark, I could hear an assertive bullfrog, harumphing from the edge of the pool, calling any available lady frogs to join his harem. A pleasant place for fish, frogs, and me on a hot Texas day.

Reading notes. Sharon Butala, in Wild Stone Heart, writes (p. 23) about the pleasure of walking around her land in southwest Saskatchewan: "I walked and I looked, by myself, taking my own good time, and in that solitary walking and looking, I found a new world that I would otherwise never have seen. Even now I'm surprised by the great and continuing pleasure that discovering the life of Nature holds for me."

8/18/2003 06:37:00 PM

Friday, August 15, 2003  
...And another Texas hurricane! But not here. South, near Brownsville. Which means that we won't get more than a few sprinkles out of it. But that's okay, since we got enough rain this week to keep us smiling for quite a while. Bill's pecans are filling out nicely, while the squirrels are pulling out their pocket calculators to figure out just how many pounds of nuts they can look forward to, and the crows are sending out squads of scouts to spot the most promising trees. It's a race to the finish, and they're smarter and faster. I'll be lucky to get enough for a half-dozen pies.

The roughleaf dogwood, Cornus drummondii , is one of the prettiest understory trees that grow in our woods. In late spring, it's covered with clusters of white flowers that mature into white berries in late summer--the leaves turn reddish-copper in the fall. It loves alkaline soil (that's good--that's what we have here in the Hill Country), and it tolerates drought conditions, once it's established. In the fall, the mockingbirds and redbirds eat the berries; in the winter, the deer sometimes eat the twigs.

And speaking of deer, a lovely sight yesterday morning, as the dogs and I walked to the lake before sunrise. Five deer in Cattail Marsh, moving serene and ghostlike in the cool morning fog. When they saw me, they froze, and we watched one another for the space of a minute. Then they turned and sailed across the fence as if they had wings, while I watched, spellbound, barely breathing. I knew I had come close to the source of everything that matters.

Reading Note.


The murmur of a bee
A witchcraft yieldeth me.
If any ask me why,
'T'were easier to die
Than tell.

The red upon the hill
Taketh away my will;
If anybody sneeer,
Take care, for God is here,
That's all.

The breaking of the day
Addeth to my degree;
If any ask me how,
Artist, who drew me so,
Must tell!

--Emily Dickinson

8/15/2003 07:34:00 PM

Wednesday, August 13, 2003  
And more rain!. Another quarter of an inch, and there is a storm approaching from the east that looks pretty impressive. The sky is that wonderful, ominous bruised blue, laced with electrical flashes. I just have time to write this before I need to log off and unplug, as a defense against lightning. (Worms and viruses can be blocked; lightning is another matter entirely.) I can't believe how green everything is--like green silk, like green velvet, so unlike August in the Hill Country.

Blooming now in the garden and along the creek, obedience plant. My friend Judith gave me the garden plant, just one, and now there are several dozen. The plants along the creek are Texas natives, and spreading rapidly under the cypress trees. The flowers, like snapdragons, bloom from the bottom of the flower stalk to the top, and stay in bloom until the entire stalk blooms--a delicate, pastel lavender-pink that makes a light, lovely accent in the shade. Perfect for streamside gardening.

Fiber stuff. I posted the Afghans for Afghans banner in the left panel, so if you want to visit their website, just click. I'm working now on a batch of caps and mittens that need to arrive by October 24. Nice way to use up my stash of yarn. And I can read and knit at the same time--well, knit a cap, anyway, nothing more challenging than that. I'm reading Blenheim: A Biography of a Palace, by Marian Fowler, in preparation for our trip. Fascinating stuff. Blenheim and the Marlboroughs are rich material for a mystery.

Reading notes. "I have everything I need. A square of sky, a piece of stone, a page, a pen, and memory raining down on me in sleeves."--Harriet Doerr

Comment or question? Email me at

8/13/2003 06:45:00 PM

Tuesday, August 12, 2003  
Well, golly, it rained! We got two inches last night, from a little thunderstorm that bloomed just to the north of us about 7 p.m., squatted over MeadowKnoll for 45 minutes, then rolled south toward the river and dissipated. There's only one word for the way the land feels and looks: grateful. This weather pattern--a trough of low pressure moving east to west, just at our latitude--is fairly uncommon for August, which is usually a dry month. But we're not complaining, oh, no. In fact, we're hoping that it'll happen again, and from the looks of the radar, it just might. The only one in the family who objected was Lady. She took her "thunder pill" just as the storm broke, but it was a two-pill storm, and there was only one in the bottle. Doctor Tom (our neighborhood vet) took care of that little problem this morning.

Fiber stuff. I don't have a photo for this entry, unfortunately, because I forgot to shoot the pic before I shipped the children's knit hats off to the Afghans for Afghans folks in San Francisco, where they'll be bundled up with other similar items and sent to Afghanistan. I found out about this on the website, and find it very satisfying. I looked up a knit cap pattern and have knitted a half dozen in the last couple of weeks. My own grandchildren have more knit things than they need, and it's a deep satisfaction to know that something I'm making will be worn and appreciated. But next time I'll take a photo before I send them. The next deadline is October 24, so get out your needles and start knitting!

Today's chores were mostly Story Circle cleanup. Peggy and Paula and I worked on the conference program (via email), and then Peggy and I finished the web pages for SCN's new book project, Women Write About the Southwest. Want a peek before we open the site to the public? Go here. I think it will be a wonderful project, and am especially looking forward to working with the other editors--a terrific group of women. (Their bios are on the site.) Peggy, thanks for all the concentrated work you did on the website today! I don't know how you do it!!

Also, thanks to Robert, for his note on mustang grapes. Yes, Robert, writing is the most fun for me when all I have to do is eavesdrop on my characters' conversations. Doesn't feel like work at all. However . . . see below.

Reading notes. "Writers kid themselves--about themselves and other people. Take the talk about writing methods. Writing is just work--there's no secret. If you dictate or use a pen or type or type with your toes--it is just work.--Sinclair Lewis

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8/12/2003 07:01:00 PM

Monday, August 11, 2003  
Today is an Austin day, with Story Circle's Reading Circle meeting, 11:30-1, and lunch with Peggy (webmistress, SCN exec director, and friend) afterward. Today's book is Blackbird, by Jennifer Lauck. You can find our full list here. We're reading some outstanding books this year, and Blackbird is a delight. I finished it last night--an accomplished use of a child's voice, with muted overlays of adult perception. It's difficult to write in this layered way, but Lauck manages beautifully.

The grape vine that ate Burnet County. Believe it or not, this is just one mustang grape vine, growing along 100 feet of pasture fence. The vine is about 15 years old, though, and still a youngster. Mature vines are known to grow to nearly 300 feet, and they rival kudzu in their ambitions.

This year was a bad year for mustangs, at least around here. The grapes didn't fill out (not enough rain), and the few that survived the heat and drought were highly acidic (which is actually fairly normal). I understand that they make good wine, though, and a decent grape jelly, although I've never tried making either. The raccoons and birds love them much more than I do. And while this vine on the fence is pretty, the ones in the woods are another matter, since they tend to smother small trees and generally make a kudzu-like mess.

Reading notes. "The best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes."--Agatha Christie

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8/11/2003 06:26:00 PM

Saturday, August 09, 2003  
Arriving in the mail today was a handsome copy of a Dutch translation (published by Briljant Boeken) of Hangman's Root, the third China book. It's a double edition, with Minette Walters' The Icehouse, a terrific mystery that won several awards when it came out awhile back. I'm glad to see China in such congenial company. The event held a special delight, because the contract for this edition came a couple of years ago, and I'd forgotten all about it.

Onions. I was browsing through old Herbalgrams the other day (Herbalgram is a magazine devoted mainly to medicinal herbs, with a scientific slant) and found this interesting note. "During the Civil War, doctors in the Union Army routinely used onion juice to clean gunshot wounds. General grant, deprived of it, sent a testy memo to the War Department: "I will not move my troops without onions." He received three cartloads." A few years ago, I did a piece on onions for the Cultivated Gardener (the NPR radio show), I would have included this anecdote if I'd known about it--a good illustration of the passion people used to feel for onions.

Practical matters. For the past couple of months, Bill has been thinking about building another carport, where he can park his new tractor, when he gets it this fall. (There's a logic to these things: carport first, tractor second.)

But before he could get the carport, he had to move several large piles of junk--pieces of metal he's been saving for blacksmithing, slabs of wood, rolls of wire, things we thought we might use someday but never got around to it. Then he had to get the ground ready, which meant clearing it down to the bare, packed soil.

Then he ordered the carport from the people who install these things. And then he waited . . . and . . . waited . . . and waited.

Three weeks and about fifteen phone calls later, the carport finally arrived. (The tractor will be along in another couple of months.) Here's Bill, resting from his labors on the back of our old ranch truck.

Wondering about the temperature? It's cooler today, because of a large complex of thunderstorms growling off to the east of us. It probably won't rain here, but it won't quite hit 100, either. Maybe just 95.

Reading notes. "The self is a fiction. I make up the story of myself with scraps of memory, sensation, reading, and hearsay. It is a tale I whisper against the dark. Only in rare moments of luck or courage do I hush, forget myself entirely, and listen to the silence that precedes and surrounds and follows all speech."--Scott Russell Sanders, Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World, p.193.

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8/09/2003 02:06:00 PM

Friday, August 08, 2003  
Trying to keep our cool. The high yesterday on our thermometer was 103; in Austin, 108; at Lake Travis, 110. Last night at nine, it was still 94. Today, no better It's two in the afternoon just now, and the temp is 104 in the shade. Forecast high 108, with temps predicted to be 100+ for at least nine hours. (And you wanted to move to Texas? You might want to rethink that plan.)

Red-hot. This Texas native, turk's cap (Malvaviscus arboreus), blooms in the dry shade in the St. Francis garden, under the cedar trees. The blooms are about the size of large cherries, and just about as bright. The hummingbirds adore it, because it's red (their favorite color) and because each blossom produces nectar all day long, not just for a few hours. I watered that garden yesterday with the sprinkler, and enjoyed watching the birds and butterflies darting through the showers. They were hot too, no doubt, and the sprinkler cooled them off. Not much traffic at the hummingbird feeders on the front porch, though. The feeders hang in the shade, but the hummingbird hootch is probably just too warm for the little birds' taste.

Today's writing task was finishing the Story Circle Journal--at least, as much as I can until Peggy Moody (SCN's executive director) gets back from her vacation and we can sort out our memoir contest results. Jane Ross's material is yet to come, but she's such a good writer that I never worry about it. One of the wonderful things about Story Circle is working with so many terrific women. Today, for instance. Peggy, Paula Yost and I have been working on the program for the national conference next February. Looks like it's just about wrapped up, after a barrage of emails between Paula and me this morning. (Thanks, Paula, for being such a good sport!) And now I'm taking the afternoon off to read!

Reading notes. "Writing is the only thing that . . . when I'm doing it, I don't feel that I should be doing something else instead."--Gloria Steinem

8/08/2003 02:24:00 PM

Wednesday, August 06, 2003  
Blooming in Cypress Meadow, beside the white boneset (or snakeroot, as you like), is this lovely camphor weed (Pluchea camphorata), not to be confused with the small dandelion-like flower that is also called camphor weed. The leaves of this pretty purple flower definitely have a medicinal smell, although the smell isn't objectionable. I read somewhere that it was used as an eyewash; my favorite ethnobotany text, Daniel Moerman's Native American Ethnobotany, says that the Choctaw used it to treat fevers.

Also in that shady corner of the meadow are blue ruellia, sunflowers, snow-on-the-mountain, cattails, a legion of volunteer china berry trees, and a gazillion varieties of grass.

Writing task for today, the Story Circle Journal, a 24-page quarterly. Marie Buckley sent me five pages of material that I pasted in, Jane Ross is sending another four or five, and I wrote three articles. We work in MS Publisher, which is easier to use than Pagemaker or Quark. Story Circle has been having a writing contest, and as soon as the judging is complete, I'll paste in the winning articles, and this issue will be just about done. The lead story is SCN's new collection of memoirs, called With Courage and Common Sense, a University of Texas Press publication that I co-edited last year. More about that later, when the book is actually published.

And another book, SCN's second collection of memoirs--this one an anthology of nature writings--got a new editor today! There's a team of us at work on this project: Paula Yost, Susan Hanson, myself, and now Jan Seale, a writer/environmentalist from the Rio Grande Valley. I'm delighted by this addition to our group. Jan and Susan both know the literature of the field, and Paula is a strong editor. We'll make a good team. More details about this project in September. Maybe one of you would like to submit a contribution. But there's lots of time. The deadline isn't until the end of March, 2004.

It's been one of those days when it really feels good to be a writer.

Reading notes. "What makes someone a writer? Writers write. Creative writers write and cultivate creativity. The urge to tell a story or shape a poem is a calling. To act on the urge is to answer that calling." --Bonni Goldberg, Room to Write.

8/06/2003 06:49:00 PM

Tuesday, August 05, 2003  
Silly geese. We have 3 gray Toulouse geese that we raised from goslings acquired 4 years ago. Last spring, our neighbor across the lake brought home two large (v-e-r-y large) white geese and turned them loose in his yard. They immediately swam across the lake to our shore and joined our flock of three. Our gray gander (Papa Macho) was not very happy about this, since the white gander is much larger and dominant, but he didn't have a lot of choice. (That's the way life is sometimes--fundamentally unfair.)

The white geese (Moby Gander and Moby Goose) seem to be much more domestic, not nearly as wild as the gray geese, and far more people-oriented. Recently, Moby Gander discovered the way to our house. Now, early every morning, he leads his little flock across the meadow, down the lane, and straight to our back door, a distance of something over half a mile. Here they are, gathered on the walk, waiting for me to come out and tell them good morning.

Of course, once they're here, they have to walk back. (The gray geese can fly, but the white geese are too large for long flights.) The dogs and I set out about sunrise for our daily walk to the lake, and the geese follow after, so they can get their corn. A mile-plus hike before breakfast, on those stubby little legs--what can they be thinking? Picture this, and smile: Susan accompanied across a Texas meadow by two rambunctious black Labs, two white geese, and three gray ones.

Catch-up . With the book (mostly) done, I'm finishing up odds and ends of writing jobs, answering mail, and making travel plans, hotel reservations, library appointments, and the like. I hope to do quite a lot of reading in early 20th century Lake District newspapers while we're in England, getting background for the Beatrix Potter books. It's hot here (upper 90s), but they're having a heat wave in England, too. It's been in the 80s in the Lake District, which is almost unheard of. Maybe it'll cool off by the time we get there. Tomorrow, it's time to start work on the Story Circle Journal, a pleasant quarterly task. I have a lot of help from others--Marie Buckley, Jane Ross, and Peggy Moody--so it's not a heavy burden. More like a labor of love.

Reading notes. "There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. ...Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher 'standard of living' is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech." -Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

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8/05/2003 06:58:00 PM

Monday, August 04, 2003  
Blooming in Cypress Meadow, under the pecan tree, a large clump of pretty Eupatorium, blooming fresh and white in the green shade.

Not sure whether it is E. serotinum (white boneset) or E. rugosum (white snakeroot). If it's snakeroot, it's highly toxic--and when cattle eat it, their milk becomes toxic too. This is the plant that's said to have killed Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's mother. I was thinking of letting the sheep graze that pasture, but on second thought, think I won't.

--Did snakeroot change Abe Lincoln's life?

Herb lore and where to find it. A reader named Melissa wrote to me the other day, asking for the names of books where she could look for herb lore for some articles she wanted to write. Since other people have asked the same question, I thought I'd share what I wrote to her. Here 'tis, with a few revisions and additions.

Hi, Melissa--
My favorite single source for this kind of research is Maud Grieve's Modern Herbal (not very modern, published in 1929). Grieve pulls together quite a lot of folk material. The book is a Dover publication and available through
their website, and online, in hypertext.

I also suggest that you order the Dover Publications catalog and look through their herbs and gardening titles. Dover is a reprint house, and make old books available at a low price. They also have a catalogue online. Here is one Dover book I use often, as a source for herb lore: Old Time Herbs for Northern Gardens, by Minnie Kamm

Two other books I've picked up over the years (both out of print): The Englishman's Flora, by Geoffrey Grigson, and Illustrated Plant Lore, by Josephine Addison. You might also look for Nicholas Culpeper's Complete Herbal, which is (amazingly) online. And for Victorian symbolism, Flora's Dictionary, by Kathleen Gips, is interesting and helpful.

And then you just have to follow your nose. I look in used bookstores. I shop online. I don't buy books written after about 1960, because most of them don't include lore/history. And I rarely buy books with pretty pictures!

Good luck to you. You've started on a wonderful journey. The history of human life on this planet can be read in the history of human use of plants. It's a worthwhile study.

Susan Albert

Reading notes.
O! Mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In herbs, plants, stones and their true qualities:
For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give.

--Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

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8/04/2003 04:06:00 PM

Sunday, August 03, 2003  
Hedge apples. When I was a kid on the farm in Illinois, hedge apples (Osage orange, bois d'arc, or if you're a Texan, horse apples) made a solid, satisfactory weapon. These hefty, grapefruit-sized fruits hurt when lobbed with malicious intent (seems like my brother and I did that a lot). Here's one that dropped from our Osage orange tree this August morning:

There were hundreds of these trees on the farm, and I can remember places where they were trimmed into fences. Planted close together and clipped, the formed a natural barrier that even a renegade calf couldn't shove his way through. In 1850, the editor of The Prairie Farmer wrote: "God designed Osage orange especially for the purpose of fencing the prairies." And not just hedge fences. The hard, rot-resistant wood was used for fence posts, wagon wheels, bridge pilings, building materials, mine timbers, and railroad ties.

And before the settlers came, Indians valued this tree, which is native to Texas and Oklahoma. They made bows and weapons from the wood, an eye ointment from the roots, a tick repellent from the sticky juice of twigs and fruit, and an orange dye from the bark and roots. If you're suffering from a plague of roaches, crickets, or other insect critters and have hedge apples at hand, try putting some around the house as a repellant. The green ones will last longer.

--more about the Osage orange
--if you want to buy some, go here
--a history of human use of this versatile tree

A quiet Sunday, with a hodge-podge of clean-up writing chores. I've been asked to do quarterly herb articles for Country Living Gardener, which is changing its format. I finished the first one, on witch hazel, yesterday, and will shine it up today and email it off. It's time to start on the Story Circle Journal again, another quarterly enterprise. And Story Circle is planning a new book, called Plains, Deserts, Mountains, Prairies: Women Write about the Southwest. I'll have more to tell you about that in a couple of weeks, when our Call for Manuscripts goes public. Dogs napping on the rug, Bach on the radio (we're blessed with TWO classical music stations in the area, both non-commercial), and a broad-limbed ash tree outside the window, turning my writing studio into a green retreat.

Reading notes. Here's a very fine poem about hedge apples, by Nancy Fitz-Gerald Viens (and used here with her permission). "Green globes of luminscent Day-Glo." Wish I'd written that line.

Horse Apples

Tail end of a ragtag summer,
Horse apple time in Texas
When heat lifts its heavy hand
Briefly from my shoulder, and
The sun sinks like a golden balloon
Behind Longhorn Meadow.
Green globes of luminescent Day-Glo
Big as Texas grapefruit
Lie in the Bermuda grass,
Hefty enough for small boys
To chunk at tree trunks or a passing car
With a satisfying "thunk."

Lumpy, ludicrous fruit
You broadcast the possibility
Of autumn once again,
The possibility of cool nights
Under a down comforter,
The possibility of a giant twist
In the atmosphere, a hurricane
To stir up dregs of my lethargic soul
Worn down by one hundred degree heat--
The great, gigantic, final possibility
Of rain.

Copyright © 1997 by Nancy Fitz-Gerald Viens, All rights reserved. To contact author:

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8/03/2003 09:57:00 AM

Friday, August 01, 2003  
Chop wood, carry water, as the Buddhists say. Today, carry water. About 15 years ago, we planted 6 cypress trees along the creek. They're 30' beauties now, and one of them (her name is Claudia) regularly drops seeds which sprout in the soft, damp earth around her roots. I dig the babies when they're about six inches tall, pot them up, and winter them over in our plant nursery beside the dog pen. Five of Claudia's cypress children are now four years old, about four feet high, and are growing happily in what we call Cypress Meadow. It's pretty dry there right now, though, so today Bill and I loaded a 50 gallon barrel into the truck, filled it with water, and hauled it to the trees. Hot work, but the cypress youngsters appreciate it, and the dogs had a good time splashing through the cattails in the creek.

Dam. Some folks downstream from us on the creek are building one. They hired a bulldozer, which has been bulldozing noisily for about a week, and has produced a big dry hole in a small meadow. The hole will fill at flood time, and then some, and if it holds water, it'll drown some large, lovely live oaks along the bank. If it doesn't hold water, it'll just be a big dry hole in a small meadow. An expensive dry hole. But there are plenty of those in Texas. Hope springs eternal.

Becky. Here's the newest granddaughter. Dad Michael and Mom Sheryl (brave souls) drove down the Alcan Highway for a family get-together in Washington state (their dad, granddad, siblings, but minus me: at home working on the book). Now Michael, Sheryl, and Becky are headed for Illinois for more family visits, and then back to Alaska. And from all reports, Becky is doing just fine, thank you. A seasoned traveler at two months. Way to go, Becky!

The rest of the reunion bunch--son Bob and kids and daughter Robin and husband Jeff--are making their way back home to Nevada and Colorado, with a bit of vacation along the way. Don't know what it is about traveling these days, but I'll feel better when we've all returned, safe, from our various journeys. And that includes Bill and me, from our trip to England. I'm looking forward to poking around the Lake District and Woodstock and Oxford, but I'm also looking forward to having the trip behind us.

Reading notes. "I am glad to live in this pocket of rumpled hills where the crust of earth shows through. Whe the fog of human voices grows too thick for my lungs, and the ticking of my own inner clock rattles my soul, and I feel the wind of momentariness whistling through my ribs, I go out to climb a cliff or splash down a stony creekbed.... "--Scott Russell Sanders, In Limestone Country, p. 173.

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8/01/2003 04:05:00 PM


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